The Pledge vs. The Contract

The Chairman of the Republican National Committee took the lectern. And he spoke about the restive mood in the electorate as the midterm elections crept closer.

"The American people are mad. They're mad about what has happened," he said.

Several, senior, GOP members of Congress followed, laying out their agenda as control of the House of Representatives swung in the balance.

"This was not a static document that was put together in Washington," chirped the Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the organization charged with electing Republicans to the House.

"Today, one political party is listening to the American people and responding with specific legislation," said the Chairman of the House Republican Conference.

"We are prepared to be very specific in what we're doing," said the Speaker of the House-in waiting. "If we win control, we need to know for ourselves what we're going to do."

House Republicans are poised to unveil their agenda for this year's elections Thursday morning, dubbed the "Pledge To America." And no, I didn't bend the space-time continuum or borrow H.G. Wells' time machine to rocket forward to Thursday morning to secure those quotes from RNC Chairman Michael Steele, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (R-TX), House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence (R-IN) or House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH).

I didn't travel forwards. But I did go in reserve. To September 27, 1994, to be exact. And the quotations came from former RNC Chairman and current Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), former NRCC Chairman Bill Paxon (R-NY), former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA).

It was a sparkling, sunny day 16 years ago here in Washington when 367 Republicans -- some sitting Members of Congress, some candidates -- gathered on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to sign the GOP's vaunted "Contract With America." A band toted patriotic marches and American flags fluttered in the breeze. When shown on C-SPAN, an announcer described the fete as "a Republican campaign rally promising a Republican agenda for the next Congress."

In 1994, the GOP codified core principles of small government and lower taxes into a ten-point, legislative bill of fare. Republican leaders promised to bring that agenda to the House floor and pass it within 100 days if voters rewarded them with control of the House for the first time in 42 years.

The Contract featured "The Fiscal Responsibility Act," which imposed a Constitutional Amendment requiring a balanced budget . It also included the "Personal Responsibility Act," a euphemism for welfare reform. Perhaps the most-contentious of the ten items, this proviso slashed welfare spending and prohibited assistance payments to teen mothers. Opponents railed against this plan, calling it "Draconian."

At the time, President Clinton was not yet two years into his first term and the public was restless. Newt Gingrich seized on this opportunity to criticize the new president in words that eerily mirror the rhetoric heard today about President Obama.

"The present administration wants to take away from the family budget to have more in the federal budget," said Gingrich when discussing tax reform. "It tells you about how out-of-touch they are with the public."

The GOP hatched an idea to buy an ad in TV Guide, enumerating the Contract With America so people could tear out the page and tape it to the wall at home.

"Put it next to the screen," Paxon suggested, so the public could monitor the GOP's progress with what he described as a "performance test."

Democrats decried the Contract. The late-Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) disparaged it as the "Contract ON America."

"This is my contract with America," Byrd would bellow on the Senate floor, reaching into his breast pocket and brandishing a thread-bare copy of the U.S. Constitution that he always carried with him.

Other Democrats were more than happy that Republicans laid down an explicit legislative docket more than five weeks prior to the election. That enabled them to criticize and warn voters about what Republicans would do if they won the House.

"Our Democratic candidates will be asking them to explain this and calling them to account," said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-CA) at the time.

Then-Rep. and now-Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) did Fazio one better when he suggested the GOP had created "Stepford candidates." It was an allusion to the lock-step, automated, Stepford wives.

But on that September morning in 1994, Republicans were charging. Then-House hopeful and later disgraced South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) appeared prominently over Gingrich's shoulder as the Georgia Republican outlined his vision for the country.

In addition to remarks by Gingrich, Armey, Paxon and Barbour, the GOP trotted out a variety of candidates from all ethnic backgrounds to show they weren't just a party of white males.

There was Bob Moppert of upstate New York. Jim Deats of Texas. Jo Baylor of Texas, Ron Freeman of Missouri and Steve Chabot of Ohio.

Ironically, of the GOP House candidates the GOP selected to speak that day, voters only elected Chabot.

Sixteen years later, Steve Chabot finds himself in the same spot he was then: trying to win election to the House. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-OH) vanquished Chabot two years ago. And after losing the House in 1994, Democrats ended the Republican reign in 2006.

In 1994, Republicans held 178 seats in the House. And as the House is in play this year, Republicans again find themselves with precisely 178 seats.

But déjà vu ends there.

Republicans will showcase their legislative compact not on the Capitol steps, but 45-minutes away at a lumber warehouse in northern Virginia. No GOP House contenders will linger amid the two-by-fours and six-by-eights. Instead, a group of 12 House Republicans will lay out a broad policy agenda culled from their "America Speaking Out" program. America Speaking Out was a dialogue House Republicans engineered to solicit ideas from the public about policy solutions.

There will be no signing ceremony and no trappings of Capitol Hill. Only a press conference and a conversation with small business owners. The "Pledge" is comprised of specifics on health care, the economy, taxes, Congressional operations and national security. But the agenda is not distilled into a nifty, made-for-consumption epistle like the one 16 years ago.

In many ways, Republicans want to embrace the elements of a Contract With America-esque roll-out. But not go too far. They want to draw comparisons between the electoral anxiety of 1994 with the discord of today. But the similarities stop there.

And unlike the 1994 Contract With America, some rank-and-file Republicans are fretting.

"This may not be as strong as the 1994 document," said one House Republican who asked not to be identified.

Another Republican was more direct as Republicans eye control of the House.

"The future of Republicans in Congress will either be enhanced or limited by this," he said. "It either launches us on a springboard toward November or lets the air out of the balloon."

And like 1994, Democrats dismissed the GOP's efforts.

"They want to put a new face with the same policies and I think the American public is going to reject it," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD). "Their agenda of 1994 was pretty superficial and largely unrealized."

The portraits of all former Speakers of the House line the Speaker's Lobby just behind the House chamber in the U.S. Capitol. Near the middle of the hallway is Thomas Nash's painting of Gingrich. Nash depicts Gingrich standing on the balcony outside the Speaker's office, the National Mall behind him. In his right hand, Gingrich holds a slip of paper. Upon closer inspection, one can see it's the Contract With America, complete with an itemization of each policy idea.

Despite the many comparisons, what the GOP releases Thursday will not be a new Contract With America. And many Republicans are loathe to call it that. After all, this is a "pledge," not a "contract." The 1994 deal with the public was binding. The 2010 version is a good-faith undertaking.

After the 1994 midterm elections, studies revealed that most Americans were not familiar with the Contract With America. But they agreed with the Republicans' proposals.

But Republicans won the House.

In 2010, it doesn't matter much whether it's a "contract" or a "pledge."

This year's legislative agenda is far from analogous to what Republicans offered in 1994.

But once again wresting control of the House from the Democrats is the one parallel they'd love to draw.